Modular Phones Are A Brilliant Idea. It’s Too Bad We May Never Have Them.

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In October, Motorola unveiled Project Ara, a development initiative aimed at creating modular smartphones that snap together as easily as LEGOs. Users will mix and match the modules they want—screens, batteries, cameras, keyboards—and connect them to a standard phone skeleton. Developers will have first crack at the system to design their own modules before Ara makes it into consumers’ hands. It’s an exciting, and entirely feasible, proposition that could completely transform our relationship to phones. But there’s a problem: It could also spell doom for manufacturers.

Ara’s open-source ethos, the idea that you’ll get the best product by allowing universal access to a product’s architecture, is borrowed from software. Google (which now owns Motorola’s hardware division) built its Android operating system on an open-source foundation. Anyone who wanted to create an app could code one right from their desktop. Tiny development teams could have the same success as large software companies. And consumers get to decide which apps they want. The result is phenomenal apps from both sides.

What happens when, instead of a whole new Galaxy S Whatever, you can just buy a new camera or battery?

But open-source hardware is much trickier. Designing and building physical things comes with higher overhead than software does, so the deck has always been stacked against the little guy. (Even cracking open a phone to replace a broken part is an onerous task.) That works out well for large companies, who are able to keep everything on lockdown, under their own quality-control umbrellas.

But those barriers are breaking down. Democratized manufacturing is allowing small companies to make gains in hardware, the same way independent app developers upended software. Small shops can design their ideas in CAD software, 3-D print parts, assemble a prototype, adjust as necessary, and then work towards a full production run. There are even resources that help companies line up their own manufacturing. HAXLR8R, a startup accelerator, for instance, helps entrepreneurs connect with factories in Shenzhen, China that are equipped to produce their wares.

That would seem to point to a bright future for modular phone projects like Ara. But a few harsh realities stand stubbornly in the way. The system would be a substantial departure from how big companies currently market their phones. Carriers and manufacturers thrive on planned obselescence; they want you to buy a new phone every two years. So what happens when, instead of a whole new Galaxy S Whatever, you can just buy a new camera or battery or screen? As things stand right now, the consumer would win and the company would lose. For everyone to win, companies must embrace and nurture open-source hardware as readily as they do software. But absent a complete market overhaul, that’s a long shot, at best.

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Popular Science.